5 Tips for Documentary Filmmakers on How to Make the Most of Your Producers

5 Tips for Documentary Filmmakers on How to Make the Most of Your Producers
5 Tips Documentary Filmmakers on How Make the Most of Your Producers

READ MORE: Abigail Disney Explains Why Documentaries Matter, and How to Get Them Funded

Last week, DOC NYC’s “Show Me the Money” series saw three filmmaker panelists sit down to discuss what exactly goes into producing and what the creative side of documentary filmmaking can learn from producers. The panelists were Dawn Porter, whose films include “Gideon’s Army” and “Trapped,” Patricia Benabe, producer of “The Hand that Feeds,” and Jen Brea, who is currently working on her film, “Canary in a Coal Mine.”

Here are some of their essential tips on how to find and take advantage of a great producer.

1. Having a producer and knowing what a producer does is vital.

When asked how important it is to have a producer on a project, in addition to a director who helps with producing, Benabe replied, “I am a producer and I work with director/producers, and I think one advantage of having a producer is simply not being alone, having someone to share the burden with you. Something I try to do is handle the logistics around the film and emotionally facilitate without them knowing. I think it’s good to have and you need to have a good relationship and feel comfortable with this person. There’s many ways to collaborate between director and producer. There’s a lot of self-awareness involved if you want to find the right person.”

Brea agreed, stating, “I think we have to ask, what is producing? People like to say, ‘Oh, it’s the person who handles the logistics and raises the money.’ I think it’s really about building a complete team around you and being honest with yourself about what you can do and identifying in the people around you what they can bring. I think as indie filmmakers, we’re called upon to develop a wide skill set, but at the same time, everyone has a place where they feel at home. Part of my process has been finding what I’m good at and what everyone else is good at and making an effective team.”

Porter warned, “If you’re lucky enough to get a producer, you don’t just hand them all the crappy work. You need to be in it together. Don’t say, ‘You do the budget stuff and I’ll go shoot and get the awards later.’ It’s not the money all the time.”

2. Sometimes a strategy can get in the way.

While it’s important to be organized and alert when funding a film, the panelists agreed that having a strict plan for fundraising isn’t always the best approach. “I think it’s hard to have a strategy from the start because you’re not really sure what’s going to grow out of it,”  said Benabe. “You have to know and understand what the funders want, but to get to that point, it’s important that the filmmakers know what the story that they want to tell is… Start small, start with private donations from family and the local humanities council before you go to any large funder. See what’s immediately around you to help you plant that seed.”

Brea added, “When you think about it, there are trillions of dollars sloshing around in the world and what I need for my film is very small compared to what there is to potentially give. There are people out there who care passionately about this issue and would want to give money, but their chances of finding me before the film comes out are relatively small unless I start taking steps to call as many people as possible and be as present as possible in the places where I am most likely to find people who care about this. It’s about trying to take advantage of media opportunities and conferences in your issue area and looking outside the film community and really talking to as many people as possible. For me, it’s a very organic process.”

3. Maintain your connections.

All the panelists agreed that it’s vital to maintain relationships with producers and other professionals and bring them on to later projects if the fit is right. Porter stated, “Bring funders from other projects with you. Bring other funders in that they are now part of your ecosystem and resources of expertise and funding. Expertise is just as important. You keep building onto your community, you don’t just let them go and move on to the next one.” 

Benabe echoed this sentiment, “There are a lot of common things in my projects, so that naturally brings me back to the same donors.” Though she did warn, “Every project is different, so I do try to start off a clean slate and think, ‘What makes sense for this project? Is it the people who have backed me up before? Is it someone else?'”

4. Having an investor isn’t always ideal.

Having worked with private investors in the past, Porter spoke on how such an arrangement isn’t as ideal as it may sound, “Sometimes we think it’s the dream. We think, ‘Where’s the billionaire who’s going to write me a flippin’ check so I don’t have to fundraise anymore?’ There’s great benefits to finding a benefactor, but there’s also rules around that. There’s legal rules. If you have a private investor, they become an investor. Your project is now a commercial entity whereas you might see it as an artistic entity. There’s a mind shift. The first thing is that you really need a lawyer. You have to have documents that verify the investor’s ability, you have to form an entity for your project, there has to be something for the person to invest in.”

“These things may seem formalistic and complicated and difficult, but it is to your benefit to lay out the terms. Put a monetary value on your project. Have the investor describe what they are investing in. You will learn a lot about your investor during that process and if you can’t get to an agreement with your investor while working out the documents, imagine making a film with that person. Because it takes several years to do these projects, you don’t want to be in business with someone you can’t talk with or somebody you feel has taken over your project and wants something you don’t want. Go through those steps because it is worth it to spend the little money you have and get the right lawyer to help you through that process.”

5. Take creative input from everyone.

In reference to creative input from producers, Porter stated, “We all tend to be kind of asshole-ish about it because we just want to make our movie. We don’t want anyone to tell us stuff, but when someone is willing to part with their money to make your film, it’s really nice to welcome them in and listen to them and figure out how you can work together and make use of everything they’re bringing besides money. That’s not in a patronizing way, but really bring them onto your team. None of these films get made alone. If you can find a good investor who you can get more than money from, that’s a good situation to try and be in.”

READ MORE: The 2015 DOC NYC Bible: Every Review, Interview and News Item

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